More thoughts on Cleveland critic's fate
The reaction to the news from Ohio last week -- that the chief music critic in town, Don Rosenberg of the Plain Dealer, has been taken off his prime music beat, the Cleveland Orchestra -- continues to reverberate.
In Don's view, Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most is not entirely worthy of leading one of the world's greatest music institutions. It's a view you can hear expressed by other critics. But even if Don were the only person in the universe who ever sounded a discouraging note about Welser-Most, he would remain well within his rights, and obligations, as a critic. Our job is not to echo the enthusiam of the audience or the board of directors or the musicians themselves. That's what claques are for.
Naturally, my colleagues in the ever-dwindling circle of music critics have a particularly strong feeling about this, for it cuts all too close to home and raises troubling issues about what we try to do for a living, and what newspapers and musicians expect from us. Members of the profession weighing in on this unfortunate business include Steve Smith, Tim Mangan, Sarah Bryan Miller, Geoff Edgers, Clarke Bustard, Janelle Gelfand, Andrew Patner, and David Stabler. (The indispensible Opera Chic has also had something to say.)
It's one thing to bring down a critic who is demonstrably uninformed, or, as they say on Perry Mason, "incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial." Not to mention unethical (I owe my last two newspaper jobs to guys who crossed that line and were fired). But it is quite another ...
One thing this sorry episode has done is trigger lots of memories. Most of us in this biz have come up against pressure at some point, to some degree or another, from those we review. Within the first year of my stint as critic at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel back in the 1980s, I had the odd experience of finding on my concert hall seat, and all other seats that night, a leaflet urging everyone to write the publisher and demand the removal of "this very young man" (I actually liked that part) who had dared come down from Washington, D.C., and tell people that the Fort Lauderdale Symphony and its conductor were not world-class. Later, I faced a delegation from that orchestra in the chief editor's office. He listened politely, told the visitors that I was hired to be a critic, not a publicist, and that was that. A few years ago, top management officials of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra came to The Sun to complain to a room full of editors about my allegedly biased coverage of financial and administrative problems at the BSO. The editors listened politely, asked some questions, expressed confidence in me and thanked them for coming. This is how it's supposed to be, not because of some rule that newspapers and critics are perfect or above reproach, but because this is what it means to have freedom of opinion, freedom of the press. When we're wrong, we issues corrections. When critics express their honest, reasoned viewpoints, we're doing our job.
I can't blame the folks at the Cleveland Orchestra and their most ardent supporters if they felt threatened by Don's presence. After all, they've signed up Welser-Most through 2018, guaranteeing him a 16-year tenure, an astonishing vote of confidence for any music director these days, let alone someone who generates mixed reviews (except in certain repertoire and, especially, when on tour with the orchestra in Europe). The prospect of having a naysayer in the local press all those years must have seemed scary. Cleveland Orchestra executive director Gary Hanson just posted these comments on my original blog about the Rosenberg case: "In recent days, the music writers’ blogsphere has been rife with assumptions and even accusations that the management of The Cleveland Orchestra engineered personnel changes at Cleveland’s daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer. These accusations are false.
"I want to set the record straight: I was completely surprised by the news ... I have never met with [editors] to protest Donald Rosenberg’s opinions ... I have delivered compliments and concerns about their news and feature coverage as well as their editorial positions and decisions. But in every case I have also said, very explicitly, that the Orchestra’s management understands and respects the paper's and the critic’s role in expressing opinion about our artistic activities. And whether or not we agree with the opinion we fully accept and support their right and responsibility to publish it ..."
Meanwhile current editor Susan Goldberg has said only that it's "an internal personnel move."
I still think something is rotten somewhere. In the end, it may not matter too much who led the charge, who exerted influence, who gave in to pressure or doubt. The damage has been done. Zach Lewis, who has been told he will now cover the Cleveland Orchestra for the paper, is a good guy and good writer placed in an impossible situation. If he says positive things about Welser-Most, some people will think he's just doing that to keep his job. If he says negative things, some people will think he's under Don's influence and will have to be replaced, too. As I said before, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Plain Dealer are worse off, not better off, as a result of this controversy. Music and journalism have taken a painful hit.
PHOTO: Cleveland Plain Dealer